' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Boxer

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Some Drivel On...The Boxer

Running just shy of two hours, Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer” (1997) does not feel overlong, just overstuffed in so much as it is piled high with situations and themes. It might be titled “The Boxer”, and it might be about a boxer, but the boxing often takes a backseat to The Troubles, and all that those entail, which – in reflecting the times in which the movie is set – are potentially nearing an end. The resolutions, in a manner of speaking, are often messy, and bloody, yet narratively they tend to feel neat, and often adorned with almost astonishingly on the nose dialogue (“I’m not a killer, Maggie; but this place makes me want to kill”). They are also filtered through a handful of characters, several of them family, whether literally or figuratively, which tends to make the Northern Ireland conflict feel more like a violent familial squabble than a low-level war. Still, for all the criticisms levied here at the outset, “The Boxer” works, not least because of the performances, all of which are solid, some of which are spectacular, as well as other details sprinkled throughout.

“The Boxer” might take place in Belfast but it opens with the real life words of Bill Clinton, during his 1995 visit, about how the sun was shining, which he hoped was an omen for peace in Northern Ireland. The sun may well have been shining during Clinton’s speech but it is hardly, if ever, shining in “The Boxer” where icy blues and cold, hard grays dominate the visual palette. This has a wearying effect, one playing straight to the performance of Brian Cox as Joe Hamill, the district IRA commander who is trying to help broker peace with their tormenters. Cox plays his character’s mission with a grave air, as if he knows the rickety nature of his own olive branch. Indeed, Joe’s hot-headed lieutenant Harry (Gerard McSorley) still has a bone to pick with the Protestants and generally ignores orders to knock things off. This character is strict cliché, but McSorley’s turn is effective, his laugh so maniacal he practically sports fangs.

Into this mess comes Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis), who 14 years ago was involved with the IRA and went to the clink, and now is being set free. The movie opens on the day of his release, where he seems almost upset at the invasion of his routine when he’s told its time to go, allowing for one of movie’s many strands of obvious dialogue (“Is 14 years not long enough for you?”). He is the boxer of the title, once promising, now essentially disowned and still in a virtual prison, underscored in myriad vérité shots from the point of view of helicopters patrolling the area. One of those shots, seen early, shows a Catholic wedding spilling out onto the streets, effectively tinging the celebration of an everlasting union with grim fatalism. The wedding is also set up for the movie’s most important plot point – that is, the overriding importance of a prisoner’s wife. You do not get involved with one or else. And Danny’s ex, Maggie (Emily Watson), Joe’s daughter, is married to a prisoner.

We don’t really get to know Maggie’s husband, or precisely what she saw in him, other than the fact he was Danny’s best friend, which merely feels like fuel for the drama’s fire. Indeed, Danny and Maggie are still in love, and while their dialogue might eventually explicate that love, it is strictly unnecessary, communicated through these two fairly titanic performances as if invisible electromagnetic romantic waves are percolating between them. If we know that eventually Danny and Maggie will come together, the movie never makes it easy, keeping them apart for most of the early portions of the film, as they communicate simply in little looks, Day-Lewis politely demurring with his head down while Watson’s blue eyes twitch. Even when they do meet, incidentally or intentionally, the tension is wholly palpable, keeping their distance but in their very air wishing they didn’t have to. And when Danny finally expresses his love, it has been building for most of the movie, an implacable desire for peace combined with a genuine sorrow for what he has lost suddenly set off in the form of something like a last stand that mutates into verbal magma before erupting in an actorly monologue for the ages.

The dilemma, of course, is that if they do come together, they risk what Joe has been building toward, which Harry seizes on, the whole thing threatening to unravel, emblemized in the community center that Danny, with the aid of his ex-trainer Ike (Ken Stott), turns into a kind of makeshift, and decidedly non-sectarian, boxing academy. That Danny is a boxer is one of the few ideas the script does not hammer home, refreshingly allowing the argument that violence is better channeled through the ring than out in the streets to emerge intrinsically, best heard in Day-Lewis’s plaintive explanation that he wants to teach the kids something. Even so, from a narrative standpoint, the boxing matches themselves sometimes can feel superfluous to what is at stake both in personal relationships and the broader political arena. Something emerges anyway, though, in Danny’s pugilistic intensity, and which further emerges in the typically ferocious commitment of Day-Lewis to getting the boxing and the training methods just right. In this world where so little seems certain, where so little seems possible, he essentially cultivates his own ring as one might cultivate his/her own garden.

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